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June 02, 2006

Ten Questions with Dr. Joseph Chamie, Demographer


A few years ago I met Dr. Joseph Chamie at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. (This was back when I was “hot” and invited to the World Economic Forum.) He was terrific there—stealing the show in his panel session. He has spoken at Garage events twice—stealing the show on both occasions too.

He is currently the director of research at the Center for Migration Studies (CMS) and editor of the International Migration Review. Prior to this position, he was the director of the United Nations Population Division.

Dr. Chamie received his doctoral degree in sociology, majoring in the field of population, from the University of Michigan. He has worked in various regions of the world, specializing primarily in Asia and Africa. He has first-hand experience with the diverse problems of less developed countries as well as the more developed nations.

For example, he lived for several years in a rural Indian village working in health and family planning; he also lived in areas of civil conflict, having spent six years with the United Nations in Beirut, Lebanon. He has also conducted research and taught at universities in the United States and abroad.

He was with the United Nations in the field of population and development both overseas and in New York for more than a quarter of a century. Among other major duties, he was the deputy secretary-general for the 1994 United Nations International Conference for Population and Development.

While at the United Nations, he was responsible for a variety of activities, including (a) estimates and projections of population; (b) determinants and consequences of demographic trends; (c) international migration and development; (d) assessing national population policies; and (e) international conferences on population and development.

With his colleagues, he published numerous studies issued under United Nations authorship, such as “Replacement Migration: Is it A Solution to Declining and Ageing Populations?” In addition, he has also written many studies in his own name in such areas as fertility, urbanization, international migration and population and development policy.

  1. Question: What exactly does a demographer do?

    Answer: That’s a very good question as most people are not familiar with a demographer’s work. Also, some of those who are familiar with this work have misconceptions about demographers. For example, some believe that a demographer is an accountant without a personality.

    It’s been definitely confirmed that most demographers are very nice people. Demographers deal in a rigorous and scientific manner with some of the most profound and exciting issues surrounding human populations, such as life, illness, death, birth, migration, growth and decline, size, density, distribution, composition, marriage, family and ageing, and their effects on the social, economic, political and environmental conditions of communities, provinces, nations, regions, and the world as a whole.

  2. Question: If you were going to start a tech company, what country would you start it in?

    Answer: No question about it; I would start it in the United States. From nearly all the international comparisons that I’ve come across, the US provides the best overall environment for technological innovation and business success. In addition, in my view, this is likely to continue to be the case for the foreseeable future.

  3. Question: If you were going to buy a home and live in any country, what country would it be in?

    Answer: I would buy a home and live in the United States. Socially, economically, politically and culturally, the US has so much to offer individuals and families. Also, given the sheer size and diversity of the country, there’s an enormous range of places to live that can accommodate ones preferences, e.g., changing seasons, warm weather, seaside living, big city excitement or rural isolation. Moreover, the standard of living in the US is such that most Americans are able to buy their own home and live a decent life.

  4. Question: The British Empire, the American Empire... is the day of the Chinese empire coming?

    Answer: It’s possible that the Chinese Empire is coming some time in the future, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Although China is growing economically at a very fast clip, it has a good way to go before it’s close to being anything like today’s American Empire, let alone the former British Empire.

    Moreover, internally China faces many demographic, social, and political challenges ahead. For example, the ageing of its population means that considerable state resources will soon need to be diverted to pay for the needs of the elderly, i.e., social security, health care, etc.

    Also, rapid urbanization and economic growth is leading to the stratification of the population, especially in concentrated urban areas with few wealthy at the top and many poor at the bottom. These challenges may very well negatively impact the country’s future economic growth and overall stability. Nevertheless, given its population size and increasing economic might, it’s clear that China’s influence globally will likely increase during the 21st century.

  5. Question: Is this ebb and flow of a country's relative position in the world just how things work?

    Answer:, Many books have been written proposing theories on the rise and decline of nations and empires, and this will no doubt continue into the future. A quick look at past tends to re-enforce this idea of the changing relative position of nations.

    However, things may be very different for the nation-state in the future, especially in light of increasing globalization and the rise of powerful inter-governmental as well as non-governmental global actors. In the European Union, for example, national boundaries have been opened for free movement and trade with a common market for its members.

  6. Question: If you were the president of a European country whose population was declining, what would you do?

    Answer: It depends of course on the specifics of the country in question, e.g., its size, density, distribution, components of decline, composition, diversity, etc. In principle, there are three basic components of population change: mortality, migration and fertility. If mortality rates are unusually high (e.g. Russia), serious efforts need to be taken to lower those rates.

    Turning to migration, one would not want to limit emigration, as this is a universally recognized human right. However, immigration is not a human right and therefore, it’s up to the country to decide on the number and types of immigrants it wishes to admit.

    Finally, there is fertility, which for policy makers is the most difficult of the three demographic components. A good number of countries with very low fertility are facilitating, actively encouraging, and even paying couples to have additional children in order to raise low fertility levels. I would not recommend cash bonuses for child-bearing. But I would favor “family-friendly” policies, which would help or make it easier for couples to have and raise the children they choose to have.

  7. Question: Based on historical lessons, what should America’s public policy be regarding immigration?

    Answer: To begin with, it should not be what we have today. America’s current immigration policies and programs are ineffective, inconsistent, unfair, divisive, and harmful.

    Should legal immigration be stopped? Of course not. The government needs to consider and decide regularly on the appropriate levels and types of legal immigration that are in the best interests of the country.

    Should illegal immigration be stopped? Of course it should—or at least limited to the lowest level possible. The country needs to get control of illegal immigration. And what about the proposed temporary guest worker program? The bipartisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, which reported to the U.S, Congress and President in 1997, advised in the strongest language against the kind of temporary worker programs that are currently again being promoted by various advocates and politicians, including President George W. Bush.

    Such programs, the U.S. Commission wrote, would be ’a grievous mistake.” They concluded that temporary worker programs for lesser-skilled and unskilled workers exert particularly harmful effects on the US. Such programs, for example, have depressed the wages and working conditions of US workers. Foreign guest workers are also more exploitable than lawful US workers, particularly when an employer threatens deportation if workers complain about wages or working conditions. Moreover, the Commission stressed that guest worker programs fail to reduce unauthorized migration and often the guest workers themselves remain permanently and illegally in the country.

  8. Question: What would happen if Mexican schools started turning out engineers and knowledge workers who wanted to immigrate to the United States?

    Answer: As I noted earlier, American immigration policies concerning the appropriate levels and types of legal immigration should be based on the best interests of the nation. This is what every country in the world aims to do. If the US decides to increase the number of visas for engineers and knowledge workers, then qualified people from Mexico and other countries are certainly welcome to apply.

  9. Question: It seems like we were afraid of “the population time bomb” and yet the countries with growing populations are the ones that are kicking butt. What gives here?

    Answer: It may appear that way, but it’s not actually the case. Many countries with growing populations are not kicking butt. Indeed, some countries, e.g., those in sub-Saharan Africa, are growing rapidly and are not doing well at all.

    On the other hand, some countries are growing very little, e.g. Japan, Republic of Korea, France, Great Britain, Ireland, Norway, and Sweden, and they are doing well economically. The question of population growth and economic growth is difficult to address because it depends on so many different things and the specific circumstances of a country.

    In my view and generally speaking, both rapid population growth and rapid population decline seem to negatively impact economic growth. If population growth or decline is relatively slow, then a robust economy and political system have more time to adjust to changing demographic conditions.

  10. Question: From a demographer's, not politician's point of view, what’s your explanation of terrorism?

    Answer: This is an interesting question—one which I haven’t come across previously. In my view, demographers have little to contribute towards an explanation of terrorism; it’s basically outside their field of expertise. Nevertheless, here’s the little that I have to offer on the subject.

    First, terrorism is not new; it’s been around for centuries and likely to be with us for some time to come. In addition, it’s been observed among populations that are small and large, young and old, dispersed and concentrated, homogenous and heterogeneous, etc. Terrorism’s demographic consequences appear to be rather minor, i.e., killing or wounding a relatively small number of people.

    However, death and injury are not terrorism’s intended goals, just its means. Its primary objective is invoking fear, panic and economic/social disruption to coerce or intimidate others in order to achieve certain objectives.


Question 8 addresses what would happen to the U.S. if there was an influx Mexican engineers. But what about the effect on Mexico?

Such an exodus of educated Mexican workers may harm Mexico as much as it harms the U.S. Sounds like a loose-loose situation to me. What do you think?

that was a bit of a boring read to be honest.

If you are like me and think that the answer to #1 isn't all that clear... try this...


Very interesting topic for the discusion. When we speak about the demography, we always speaks abou the immmigration. the North America and European Union have made the life in their area so good that people donot need more to go to the university for get the degree and the knowledge that will help them to alive. I heard about the intelectual border for immigration very often, and too many people begins to speak about the engineering immegration from Ukraine. The good level of live makes not only decrease the children borns but makes people not educated.

I'm curious as the relationship between environmental degradation in Afghanistan and the economic and political chaos that made it a good base for Al Qaeda. What was the historic population of Afghanistan? Has the population grown in the 20th century? Did population growth, and use of wood as fuel, lead to deforestation, erosion and environmental collapse?

Good questions for a demographer.


As someone interested in culture and how the next generation needs to understand the important concepts of culture, thanks for that interview.
I've never read an interview with a demographer before - very insightful!

Interesting stuff on China, but it ignores how easy it would be for China to turn the population floodgates back on again, if that were to make economic sense for the country.

Nice high quality interview, Guy. Thanks!

great interview...thanks

he must have good numbers, but I wonder if it was 1960 if he would say the same thing about unskilled or illegal immigrants. Of course, the US needs skilled immigrants , but we had waves of unskilled Irish, Italian, Polish, Chinese workers over the decades till the 60s. They built this country. We spat on them and called them Paddy and Dago but they built this country. They were all "illegal" immigrants - we just did not have laws back then which defined them as illegal

Recent immigrants since 60s - Japanese, Korean, Indians have done marvellously, but somehow mask the fact we we also need unskilled labor.

Immigrants are risk takers. They are entrepreneurs.

Immigration is a US core competence. We have done it for 200 years.
Sure we need controls but not hysteria...

Texas is setting up cameras for "citizen cops" to monitor border in their areas.

Tell me that is going to help our GDP the hours people spend watching that streaming video...

So, I would prefer to hear from someone like him specific numbers on unskilled, agriculatural etc migrant labor we need...not political language

And now for something completely different. :) Something to think about for all of us. Demographics is about people, a lot of people, but people all the same.

It would have been interesting to see some questions about how Dr. Chamie thinks the net is impacting demographics, if at all.

You forgot to ask him if it's really possible that the hispanics are really going to replace whites as the majoritarian race in the US.

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